Friday, September 25, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: He Ain’t Baptist, He’s My Brother

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: Quick quiz, IC: How many different local churches have you been part of? I’m not counting churches you’ve visited, but just those you would have considered “my church” for a period of time; churches in which it would have been notable to others if you weren’t there.

Immanuel Can: Um … rather more than most people, I suspect. I’ve been regarded, for some time, as a regular attendee of … I make it 14. I might be missing one or two. My youth and early adult years were marked by a lot of moving around, so it wasn’t a product of unhappiness in most cases. How about you?

Tom: Eight. Second question: How many of those churches were in the same town as one of the others?

First Century Church Unity

IC: Essentially, three were in the same town as another that I had attended. But some were in different corners of a huge, metropolitan area, so it’s tough to say. You?

Tom: Same thing with the huge, metropolitan area. You could argue five of my eight were in the same city, but realistically they were miles apart.

Here’s what I’m getting to in my elliptical fashion. In New Testament times, as you know well, there were not 300 different church meetings espousing different theologies and different practices in the average large city. Paul wrote to “all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” as if they were a bloc. He wrote “to the saints who are in Ephesus”, though they may have met under many different roofs because there were no gigantic church auditoriums in those days. You could not leave a church and go to another one in the same town back in those days. There was only one Christian church.

IC: What do you make of that?

Unity as a Fact of Life

Tom: Well, this unity was a fact of life in the first century church, whether the particular gathering in question was a great one or a not-so-great one. I would imagine that for every first century church environment that was fulfilling and desirable, like maybe the early church in Jerusalem, there would probably have been a Corinth, in which you would encounter unjudged sin, pride, unprofitable, confused worship and teaching, factions and disagreement, and believers under the judgment of God. In other words, at least as bad as some local churches today. Stuff that people leave churches over.

But there was nowhere to go. Even if there was more than one congregation in Corinth (which seems at least a possibility given that the most frequently documented way of gathering in the first century was the house church, with its inherent size limitations), in both his letters Paul addresses the Christians there as a single entity, the “church of God that is in Corinth”. At that time, what was characteristic of one regular gathering in Corinth was probably characteristic of all, or at least required the same sorts of warnings or admonitions. If you didn’t like what was going on in the Corinthian church, I suppose you could move to another town, but that was about your only option.

Not Neglecting to Meet Together

IC: Yes, I’m sure that was true. In those days, travel was rare and dangerous. I understand that then most people were born, grew up and died within a 30 km radius of one place, so moving around was hardly the norm. What’s your implication from that?

Tom: I guess I’m just trying to work out for myself the differences between then and now, and what (if anything) those differences might say about the freedom of movement we enjoy among God’s people today.

Let me throw this at you: Do we have a tendency to make our obligation to reflect the unity of the Body of Christ in a local church a little overly specific? We read, for instance, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some”. Some people take that to mean, “Don’t miss a meeting, and especially not one of OUR meetings.”

IC: Yes, that’s true. We do have a tendency to interpret “meeting together” as equivalent to “at the designated church building” and presumably “for as many of the regular services as apply”. Barring that, one is assumed to be less committed or perhaps even failing to practice fellowship. The idea that people would be “meeting together” by being in fellowship with Christians who meet in other ways and congregations does not tend to enter our thinking so quickly.

That’s an interesting thought. Much of our conventional “church service” routine is actually more a matter of tradition and custom than theology. But it has taken on the kind of incontestable solidity that things can only have when the people involved have literally known no other way — and that from birth.

So Are You Ecumenical, Compromised or Traitorous?

Tom: I’m not suggesting we should be uncommitted to our particular local congregation; not at all. But Paul saw all the true believers in Jesus Christ in any particular city as part of the same spiritual unity. Is it possible for us to demonstrate that same sort of spirit today without being considered ecumenical, compromised or outright traitorous?

IC: Probably not. It’s an old impulse that people have: if you’re not precisely “our type”, you don’t count. Sometimes the issues that separate groups are real, and sometimes they’re imagined; but the presence of some sort of distinction-making is nearly universal. The question is should we care?

Tom: You mean, as New Testament Christians, should the differences matter to us?

IC: Yes.

Tom: Only, I think, when we come across people who claim to be Christians but are “lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power.” When that happens … well, that’s when we’re to make serious distinctions about where we spend our time.

The thing is, most differences between Christians aren’t on that level at all.

Making the Rounds

Let me ask you something: If you were to take the next four weeks and go to four different evangelical meetings in your neighborhood, what sort of reaction do you think you’d get?

IC: For one week each? Not much. People come and go.

Tom: Right, of course. But what sort of reaction do you think you’d get from people in your home church once they found out you were making the rounds?

IC: Well, maybe a visit from the elders: that can come out of caring or out of controlling, depending on the congregation and on how high-profile the mendicant member happens to be. But most congregations won’t do that because today many churches runs on what sociologist Peter Berger calls, “the consumerist model”. People come and go in order to find what appeals to their tastes, and congregations work to appeal rather than to control — or to care, alas.

Tom: True. And many people do shop around for a church because of their particular preferences or because they think another church may be a better fit for a member of their family.

Building Bridges

But let’s assume you’re not being frivolous or selfish and that you’re not uncommitted to your own local gathering, but genuinely trying to give expression to a spiritual reality we all (at least theoretically) know to exist. If you were to say, “I’m attempting to give expression to the unity of the Body of Christ by visiting my other brothers and sisters in our community”, how do you figure that might go over?

IC: Well, for some people it would be a bit of a paradigm shift. Some maybe couldn’t make that jump at all. But that wouldn’t mean it wasn’t right, would it?

Tom: No, exactly. I’d like to think there’s some way of building bridges with local believers who don’t all gather weekly under the same roof. You’re in a home Bible study group that’s from a bunch of different churches in the same area, aren’t you?

IC: Indeed. At one time, all of us were in exactly the same local church. But circumstances such as moving houses and new careers removed some of us to different congregations. Yet we’ve remained in the same life group, even though now some are in different local congregations. It’s unusual, but far from anti-scriptural.

Tom: I’m not suggesting it’s anti-scriptural at all. I’m suggesting we could use more of it. Getting feedback from and interacting with solid Christians with different views and habits of meeting is healthy, I think. It’s a regular reminder to us to distinguish between what is actually written in the word of God and what is merely traditional. It’s when we elevate our preferences to the level of the written Word that we’re in trouble.

The Elevation of Preference

IC: Ah, now, this is a good point. It’s easy to think that what-we’ve-always-done-plus-a-verse-with-the-word-in-it amounts to an inviolable scriptural precept. Meanwhile, it’s been a long while since we read the verse in question, and we’ve never read it in context. In that connection, the “not forsaking the assembling of yourselves” verse is one of the most often trotted out to say, “Stay home in your local church, and stay away from Christians who aren’t quite like us.” But that’s just not in there.

Tom: There are lots of opportunities for such things. There’s a Baptist guy I know who shows up every Tuesday night at the local prayer meeting of a different denomination because his own church’s midweek meeting conflicts with his work schedule. Why not? He’s added value in the other meeting.

IC: Absolutely. And this is the basic question: Is this person bought by the blood of Christ? Are they truly his?

If he is, then regardless of how weak his understanding may be, how confused his views may be, or how different he may seem, he’s my brother — and if he’s good enough for Christ, he has to be good enough for me. I have to welcome him, care for him, accept him, and treat him as in every way my brother. In any case, I have zero right to disregard him or break off relations with him.

Tom: To paraphrase the Hollies,“He ain’t Baptist, he’s my brother.”

Dodging the Issue

But how often do we dodge this whole issue by just not associating with our brothers and sisters down the street in the first place?

IC: Often, I think … though it seems to be breaking down somewhat. Partly that’s a result of a much more general awareness of other Christians (especially among the young and middle-aged), occasioned by our transient and media-rich society; but partly it’s a result of crises as well.

Tom: There’s a balance to be struck between two extremes: On one hand, you cocoon in a single local church or denomination and never step foot outside it. When that’s done for reasons of “purity”, it seems to me it’s particularly distasteful. On the other hand, there’s a danger of seeing the local churches in your neighborhood as some kind of interdenominational buffet that you can go around endlessly sampling, grabbing all the good bits and avoiding anything unpleasant or mucky like commitment.

IC: Yes, true. A great deal depends on motives. And it is always very hard to say what someone else’s motives are, so it’s best to look to ourselves, isn’t it?


  1. Good post with some good ideas and food for thought. From personal experience, when a group (or more usually a small subset) of believers from local congregation A attempts _real_ community/fellowship with others from congregation B, especially if the latter has noticeable differences in practice it is usually met with at least discomfort from the "assembly". Christian unity, though a fundamental part of Jesus' prayer in John 17, is rarely explored in practice. Shame on us for being so insular.

    1. Too true, Russell. When it's only one person or one family, people usually let it slide. But when the movement of bodies from A to B becomes common enough to generate discussion, the attention that follows is often unfavourable.

      As you say, though, shame on us. My own views on this have changed significantly over the years as I came to more clearly understand who exactly it is that I am united with in Christ. Lots of Christians I know are sharper than I am, so I remain hopeful about encouraging others to think beyond their own comfort zones.